Monday, July 25, 2011

the sliding scale of connotation

I think one of the most fascinating things I've noticed in French, that exists in every language but one never notices in one they've spoken all there lives because that's just how it is, is the sliding scale of word strength.  For me, never was this more apparent than having a conversation with a friend of my mother-in-law's at the foot of the stairs.  We were talking about something, and she mentioned that it was "carrément bien."  The conversation continued, but while we were talking, the hamster got on his wheel.

I had thought back to other conversations I had previously with not only her among other friends, but also with other members of my family.  There seemed to be a class of words, all meaning various degrees of "really" that could be used almost interchangeably with a slight change in meaning.  I am sure there's a technical term for this among Francophone scholars, but I liken it to what I jokingly referred to with my brother once as the sliding scale of sexuality.  This, however; we'll call the sliding scale of connotation. 

So this is by no means an exhaustive list, and if you can think of others in French I would love to hear them, but this lies in the case of really.  Now in some ways, this really functions exactly the same as the English adverb.  Crazy as it might sound, you take two languages as inextricably intertwined as English and French, and wow!  --They're related!  Quel coincidence!  So the list that I came up with in my head was: "franchement," "carrément," "vraiment," and "vachement."  Each has the core idea of  truth, but each carries a slightly different tone of connotation.

When one sees the word "franche" in French, it tends to be most directly translated as "frank."  For a variety of reasons, I find this far more amusing than I have any right to.  First and foremost though, there is the element of historical assumption in all this.  As I said, this is assumption on my part, but the word "frank" is assumed to descend from the Old French word "franc" which in turn finds earlier roots in the Latin word "francus," meaning "free."  Logically, we can make the leap that one who is free would be able to say things in a frank manner.  Therefore, if something is described as "franchement" it can be inferred that the person is also able to speak candidly, openly, or any other variant that we have in English.

Another interesting side point: France itself or parts of France have been given variants on the nomenclature of "frank" and "franche."  Of course, that varies by country of origin.  For example, in most Germanic languages, the name of France often incorporates some variant on "free kingdom."  In German, it is known as "Frankreich," Dutch only varies the spelling and pronunciation slightly with "Frankrijk," and Norwegian about the same with "Frankrike."  Even languages like Welsh use some form of the original "franc" in its word for the country.  

Also, there is a region located in the east of France known as "Franche-Comté" which translates to "Free County."  It was originally a free country of Burgundy, and changed hands numerous times being taken by France first from the Burgundian Dukes, then taken by Austria, then Spain, and Finally returning to French control with the Treary of Nijmegen in 1678.  It is comprised of four provinces (Jura, Doubs, Haute-Saône, and Territoire de Belfort) and has two dialects of spoken French (Langue d'Oïl and Arpitan) both falling under the Franco-Provençal sub group of the larger Romance family.

Getting back to the bloody point (don't tempt me because I could easily blow a load over sub-languages in France.  I'm in freaking Brittany for pete's sake!) carrément, in my opinion, seems to be the most devoted to truth, I most often find myself translating it as bluntly.  However, one of my favorite ways to look at it is as "the unvarnished truth."  If something is described as "carrément," there are neither two schools of thought  nor two ways to slice it.

The root word "carré" is most often used when discussing anything square.  For example, in math when you want to say square root, it's simply said "carré."  When you're looking for an apartment, all the sizes will be described in metre carré instead of square feet.  Funny enough, a person can also be described as carré.  It's kind of like saying someone is big boned in English, but almost always if not always refers to a male.

A word I've had some difficulty differentiating is carreau.  Carreau also refers to square things, but in this case, they are more tangible.  Floor tiles would be described as carreaux, the plural form of carreau, as well as the suit of diamonds in a card game.  However, it should also be noted that if you live in France, the most dreaded use of carreaux will be in "faire les carreaux."  This literally means to wash the windows, but that's where the similarity stops.  If it were an Olympic sport, France would be a force to be reckoned with.  Americans break out the Windex and we're good, but the French are going old school with a squeegee.  Conveniently, you'll learn the all important phrase combination of "Putain, ça m'enerve!" while doing it and the even more important "faites chier!" if it rains the following week.

Vraiment, you would assume, is the most straightforward of the bunch, but such is not the case.  In general, vraiment implies a sense of truth or actuality.  The French word for true is baked right in there, after all.  However; it also most commonly works out to the intensifier really.  This form is the most pure sense of reality of the group.  I know it's strange to say one word implies the truth but has less to do with reality, but it's not always the case that truth and reality go hand in hand.

Now for my personal favorite of the bunch (purely for its level of inexplicability); vachement!  Translated literally, this means "cowlike."  I kid you not; "cowlike."  For those of you who have studied French, you're probably familiar with the phrase "Oh, la vache!"  This phrase implies that something is incredible.  (I am sure that others out there have probably seen the Monty Python Movie and the famous quote "Faites chier la vache."  I'll let you translate that gem on your own.  I have no idea why something would relate to a cow as wonderful, but then again, I'm only two-thirds French and pretty far removed at that. 

Now there are all sorts of intersecting ideas here, and I'm sure there are other words that come in here too.  As I said, these are the impressions that I have gotten.  I am by no means an actual scholar of French further than I am learning as I go.  Mais pour moi, je vais vachement bien, et j'espère qu'on parlerait très bientôt!  à plus tard!


  1. very interesting, now if ever I visit France I will know the correct way to use "really"

    have a great day